The Superversive in Film: Flash Gordon

The zeitgeist that the original Star Wars created in the late 1970s pushed a lot of studios and production companies to grab every possible property comparable and get a movie out the door. In 1980 this got us a feature film version of one of the classics of Pulp SF: Flash Gordon.

My father took me to see this film in one of the few remaining neighborhood single-screen theaters at the time,
and we both had a good time. Since then it’s become one of those films I enjoy watching from time to time, and as I get older I appreciate the earnest and sincere quality of its Romanticism and heroism (especially as the rest of society goes increasingly insane and dyscivic).

Yes, it’s campy. That’s its charm, and because of that camp approach its sincerity and earnestness gets a pass by a lot of hipsters and other wanna-bee cool kids. The storytelling is solid, and the performances played straight- thanks to the timely intervention early on of Max von Sydow taking the cast aside and advising them to do just that if they wanted to have a career after they wrapped. (They did. It works. It really works. Save for the lead, they did- some for decades thereafter.)

You’re in for a great time with this film, and the soundtrack by Queen nails the mood perfectly. (Get the soundtrack.) Flash does his best John Carter impression, Dale her best Dejah Thoris, and every major character is someone you love to love (or hate). Boredom is not an issue here, and neither is the way that the heroes succeed because of their moral qualities (and the villains fail accordingly). This is one of the most blatantly Pulp and Superversive films I’ve yet written about here, and if you want to see that old-school style presented in all its glory then this film delivers. Recommended. You should have a copy in your media library.

But wait, there’s more.

If you like the film, chances are also good that you’ll like the animated series put out at that time. It came out the year before (1979), and ran for one season; the techniques Filmation used for this series would go on to become their signature style and be employed for He-Man, She-Ra, Blackstar, and Bravestar. The presentation of Flash, Dale, Zarkov, and the rest of the cast is no less Pulp or Superversive but the differences are enough to make it engaging and it is very entertaining.

There are other, older film adaptations, which are also fun, but eventually you should go back to the original comic strips. Now collected in coffee-table sized volumes, the 1980 film’s roots in the original material becomes clear once you feast your eyes on them. Alex Raymond–the creator–made a character no less a classic than Edgar Rice Burroughs or E.E. Smith did. Action, romance, heroism, adventure- everything that the film is the distilled essence of you get the full measure of here. Start here and read every volume thereafter. You’ll not be disappointed.

I’ll let Queen play this out.

The Superversive in Film: The Last Starfighter

We return once more to that period between the late ’70s and mid ’80s when that last flourish of old-school pulp sensibility arose in the form of feature films out of Hollywood done by then-rising names in the business. This time, it’s The Last Starfighter, another Space Opera made possible due to the success of Star Wars.

This film, like Tron, falls into that “Boy’s Own Adventure” style of adventure where our hero–although an adult–still speaks and acts like the boys this film is intended to entertain. That means the film’s style of presentation is in harmony with that audience also: earnest, sincere, and uncomplicated- but not simple.

The reason this is superversive is that this film’s story, as with many stories aimed at boys, is about the necessity of accepting responsibility- not just for yourself, but on behalf of those depending upon you. For an emerging generation of boys, soon to become men, this learning how to face difficult and dangerous realities even when you would rather run because if you don’t no one else will.

A careful review of the story’s narrative shows this to be the case. The critical events that make our hero into the titular character comes about due to succumbing to that very fear and running from the responsibility that his previous actions–qualifying as a Starfighter gunner–put upon him. Today some would cry about this being unfair,
or unjust. That doesn’t matter; it’s a job that men need to do, like it or not, because not doing it means far, far worse for everyone- man, woman, and child. Stories like this are necessary for boys, because this reality is their future as men in one form or another.

Which brings up another, understated but no less critical point: at no point does our hero get dumped on for taking up his burden and doing his duty. The others that benefit by his actions appreciate what he risked for their sake, and it is this acknowledgement that completes the superversive elements of this story. No one wants to risk life and limb for ingrates, and no society so ungrateful benefits from such deeds for long as it subverts that fundamental institution of any healthy society and culture. The audience of the day rewarded this handsomely, making it one of the latter day classics with lasting influence. It still holds up today. Recommended.

The Superversive in Film: The Black Hole

In 1979, Disney release The Black Hole. This science fiction film got released during the time between the original Star Wars of 1977 and the first sequel (The Empire Strikes Back) in 1980. It was a blatant, and honest, attempt to cash in on the renewed interest in science fiction as an adventure film genre and as such held true to certain old-school sensibilities that George Lucas’s Space Opera revitalized two years prior.

It’s sometimes derided as a Haunted House movie in space, but that’s not fair. The actual speculative element–the titular black hole–literally makes it presence felt in the first reel, drives the plans (and motivations) of the antagonist, and plays the singular role in the climax of the film. For those science fiction fans looking for something scientific to talk about, you’re not disappointed; there is no story without the black hole, so don’t worry about the trappings of gothic horror used throughout.

What makes this a Superversive film is also laid out straight away: the defiance of logic, reason, and good order in favor of reckless and obsessive pursuit of a passion to the point of madness and degeneracy of character. This is symbolized by the antagonist’s reliance on robots and automation over human crewman and proper navel procedure, a symbol made literal at a critical turning point in the plot when a revelation good enough to come out of a Cyberman episode of Doctor Who hits, after which things go increasingly bad for our heroes.

At no point is the antagonist–a precursor to the ethics-lacking “science” Establishment of today–portrayed as anything but a softer Colonel Kurtz-as-a-Mad-Scientist. Each of the cast who succumb to the antagonist’s scheme do so due to critical character defects overwhelming them and compelling the doomed to their demise, while those who endure to the end do so because their fundamental decency shields them from the antagonist’s attempt to seduce them into following his scheme.

The real achievement, for you younger folks out there, is that the horror of the antagonist’s evil gets shown to the viewer without any gore whatsoever. This film, being one of the last of the old-guard Disney films, never lies to or insults its audience (or their parents) by talking down to them or relying on cheap tricks. The heroes win (as much as any hero in a tragedy does win) by being both right enough to withstand temptation and skilled enough to withstand retaliation. The antagonist is utterly undone by his own hand, learning well the price of hubris, and our heroes escape that same fate- if barely. (This is where the tropes of gothic horror get most applied, after their aesthetics.)

This is not some “villains win because Good is suck” story. This is not some excuse to parade degeneracy and moral abomination as the New Normal. This is a well-told story, where heroes are heroes, men are men, women are women, and robots are interesting (for fair and foul reasons), that (if not for the special effects) you might expect from a film 10 years prior.

Much like the Mohicans, The Black Hole was part of the last generation of a Disney (and a generation of film professionals) that faded away in the 1980s (with Tron being the last gasp). The Disney of today may, at times, echo that lost era but it is not Walt’s house anymore. Recommended, especially if you want to know why Disney rarely even tries to do this sort of thing anymore.

The Superversive in Film: Tron & Tron Legacy

In 1982, Disney released a second science fiction film during that six-year period where the original Star Wars trilogy made its mark on world culture. That film was Tron. (The first being 1978’s The Black Hole, which I’ll get to another time.) As with many science fiction and fantasy films of this era, it became a cult classic and made a big impression on a generation who’d come of age with personal computers and (later) the emergence of the Internet.

I didn’t have “superversive” to describe the original film when I came back to it as an adult. At the time, I called it a “Boy’s Own Adventure” film because–despite the protagonist being an adult, and the subject matter being quite serious–how the film went about telling this story clearly aimed at an audience of boys either early in or coming up on adolescence. It has a fairy tail quality to it, a sincere and earnest quality, that those who’d seen earlier films (such as The Computer That Wore Tennis Shoes) would find familiar and comfortable.

Yet this film most certainly was Superversive, and even now that’s clear as day. The villain (Edward Dillinger) is a thief, albeit a cunning one, and a rival to the hero (Kevin Flynn) as a creator; the villain’s creation (the Master Control Program, “MCP” for short)has surpassed him and now threatens to go out of control, trapping the villain by his own hubris. The hero succeeds thanks to his friends’ aid (as well as that of their creations)- most notably being the title character, the program Tron. The virtues of courage, fortitude, and loyalty win out over the treachery and despair that the villains wield as much as the discs this film is famous for. Kevin’s fortune is restored, and the promise of a better tomorrow for all is put before us at the end. Its story is simple, but well-done, and still holds up today.

The sequel, Tron: Legacy, seems a subversion- a deliberate pozzing. Yet it is not; it is as Superversive as its predecessor. People mistake the darker tone and mood for subversion, when it is a clear extrapolation of the exact mood evident at the end of the original film. Again, the flaw at play here is hubris; Kevin exhibits a clear overconfidence in the original film, which is what got him in trouble initially and stymied his efforts to get back at Dillinger then. As the sequel shows, this flaw was not tamed; the overconfidence consumed Kevin and drove him to madness that he did not realize until it was too late and–like Dillinger–the creation (Clu2, Kevin’s System Administrator) got out of control and threatened even worse.

That seems like a shallow excuse to remake the original with a new case and fresh effects, but to its credit Legacy went beyond that. The narrative clearly shows the consequence of Kevin’s hubris on every single character in the film, trapping Kevin into despair and non-resistance- a trap that takes the heroine (Quora) with him.

Unlike the first film, the new hero (Sam Flynn, Kevin’s son) doesn’t blindly repeat his father’s adventures. He challenges his father’s assumptions, telling him how his utopian visions resulted in dystopian dysfunction out in the real world. This gets amplified by Kevin realizing the root of Clu2’s hatred for him: parental abandonment, as Clu2 (without ever saying so) resents Kevin for favoring Sam over him (using his argument about his purpose and mission as the proxy). For Kevin, this film is a tragedy of his own making and he owns up to it in the climax.

For Sam, the film is not just saving his father, but superseding him as he succeeds him- taking Quora with him into the (again) promised better tomorrow. To get that ending, he had to face–and fess-up–to his own despair-based behaviors and change his ways accordingly. In other words, Sam had to man up, and in so doing got his father to man up also. By the end of the film, she looked forward to a new world full of light and life at Sam’s side.

Hollywood in general, and Disney in particular, have had a serious problem with undermining the culture with their films and television for years now. These two films are exception; they don’t lie to the audience in the course of telling their stories, which is likely why we won’t see another like it for many years to come- not without popular support backed by related sales. Watch these films; you’ll be glad that you did.

The Superversive in Film: Ozamu Tezuka’s “Metropolis”

In 2001, the anime adaptation of Fritz Lang’s 1927 classic Metropolis released in Japan. It came to the West some time later, and–having watched both–I find the adaptation to a more powerful story because it relies even more on the bedrock of Western culture (Christianity) than the original.

The difference is the establishment of a reason for the erection of these skyscrapers and the industrial complex that drives that powerbase: the explicit attempt to create a second Tower of Babel. If you are at all familiar with that story, then you already know how this is going to end.

What matters here is the execution. Instead of our protagonist being the villain’s son, he’s an outsider who visits the titular city alongside his uncle (who’s there on a case) that gets wrapped up in a mess of a plot over a child-like gynoid that’s central to the villain’s plans. The brewing revolution, with ready revolutionaries, from the original is carried over and developed further into a vital subplot whose conclusion ignites the climax.

All of which serves to underpin a consistent thread that, as with the original, the industrialization that the city presents (and represents) is dehumanizing to everyone captured by it. Only our protagonist, being an outsider, retains the human humility necessary to see the folly in all of the plotting going on and implores with the one other character immediately able to stop it to do so- and, at the last moment, succeeds.

The story goes to the effort to show how the apparent peace and prosperity of the city and its inhabitants comes at the cost of subverting the population’s dignity, which they return in kind to the elites preying upon them as well as to the robots who often are the means of this dehumanization, which has exactly the effects that are known to happen to a culture over time: a downward spiral of degeneracy into savagery and despair as the real needs of one and all are unmet as they should, symbolized by the story’s setting degenerating into ever-meaner locations and ever-more-desperate maskings thereof before the pressure is too much as everything (literally and otherwise) blows apart. Fortunately, our hero’s essential innocence allows him the means to see through this tragedy and plant the seed of a better tomorrow.

While there’s no confounding of language, the result is the ruin of the attempt and its abandonment by the survivors in favor of reconciliation and reformation into something that this renewed humility in the (surviving) people can accomplish without dehumanizing themselves, their creations, or each other. As both an homage to the original that equals, if not surpasses, Lang’s film as well as on its own merits this is a story that ends in a bittersweet, but, hopeful mood after seeing great amounts of hubris result in self-destruction as pride goes before a fall. Recommended.

If you would like to see for yourself, you can buy a copy of Osamu Tezuka’s Metropolis at Amazon. The soundtrack is also worth getting a physical copy of, as this playlist shows.

The Superversive Gundam Series: Gundam Unicorn

“Superversive” and “Mobile Suit Gundam” doesn’t get associated often. Over the course of the history of this giant franchise of Japanese science fiction, there’s been a strong note of despair and incidents of nihilistic excess that cannot be ignored. (If Yoshiyuki “Kill ‘Em All!” Tomino is involved, be ready for it.)

This is not universal, and recently a series not only shook itself loose of that legacy but managed to be Superversive. That series is Mobile Suit Gundam Unicorn Re:0096, and you can watch it free and legal here (subtitled into English) or (for American readers) on Adult Swim’s Toonami block on Saturdays (dubbed). If you prefer (and you can find them, and read Japanese) there are print versions; Unicorn originally was a light novel before its series adaptation.

The reason I mark this series out as Superversive has to do with the subject of the story, which concerns itself with the origin of this setting’s creation and the corruption that took root at the beginning to subvert the real potential for the uplifting of Mankind into a more perfect form- Newtypes (i.e. psychics, telepaths). The conflict of the story revolves around those seeking to maintain the undermining lie upon which all of this meta-narrative’s conflict revolves, or expose the truth to all of Mankind and thereby risk the collapse of a corrupt order into utter chaos in the effort to restore the original intention of the founders of the Universal Century era.

And by saying that much, I likely spoiled some of it. My apologies.

This is a series featuring giant robots fighting battles where our protagonist is reluctant to fight, tries to love his way through it all, and–especially once he gets a literal princess at his side–actually manages to pull some measure of it off. Why? Because that desire to love his enemies leads him to the truth, and that truth is the means that leads him to achieve his victory in the end despite facing down multiple superweapons and just as many black-hearted antagonists who’d throw billions to Baal (not so figuratively) than admit that they serve a lie.

While many Gundam series conclude with bittersweet success for the protagonists, if they succeed at all, this time it’s properly uplifting. There’s a reality to it that isn’t present in others, and a decided lack of nihilism despite all of the suffering and death that occurs. While I’ve yet to watch a Gundam series that lies to me, this is the first one that ended in a way properly uplifted me, like after I watched Star Wars the first time lo those many years ago.

In short, this is a beautiful series in all ways possible. Short of a Miyazaki masterpiece, it is rare to get such a treat in most franchise anime. Recommended.

St. Lucian’s Star: A Catholic Science Fiction Short Is Published

Out today at Lyonesse, a short fiction subscription service, is my science fiction adventure tale, St. Lucian’s Star. It’s the story from the POV of Lillyanne Troppe, a young lady with a gift for locating lost objects. Set in 2087, she gets the chance of a lifetime to accompany the handsome Relic Hunter, Darrion Artenan, on the recovery mission. The exciting adventure turns into a nightmare as things go wrong.

St. Lucian’s Star
By Dawn Witzke

Earth, 2087

“I’m closed!” I didn’t look when the bell jingled on the front door. It was likely just Alma. Again. The 103-year-old woman could never keep track of her keys. Or her purse. Or her teeth. Locating another lost set of keys was not on my agenda for the evening, but saying no to Alma wasn’t an option. What she lacked in size and strength, she made up for in attitude. The majority of my referrals were from Alma. If I denied her once, most of my clients would go with her. Finding lost keys wasn’t very exciting, but it paid the bills. At least it would be quick and then I could go upstairs, get in my pj’s, eat cold pizza, curl up with Jake and read the latest Declan Finn novel.

I inherited the building that served as both my home and office a few years past when the gentlemen I was renting from died. He had left me everything, which wasn’t much beyond the building and a cabin at Spirit Lake. I sold the cabin and used the money to fix up the building and upgrade the outdated appliances. I didn’t have much, but I didn’t need much.

On the first floor, the front door opened into a hallway that led to two rooms. The larger of the two was my work room, where I entertained clients. The other was my closet sized office where I kept the records for my floundering locating service.

Troppe Recovery.
Nothing is too small to locate.

Read the rest of the story at Lyonesse, then stop back and let me know what you think.

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